Health Care Providers Must Treat Gay Patients Equally Under Civil Rights Laws, State Appeals Court Says

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Lambda Legal Calls First Ruling of Its Kind a "Huge Victory for Equality"
March 4, 2003

(San Diego, March 4, 2003) - In the first ruling of its kind in the nation, a California appeals court today said health care providers cannot discriminate against patients based on their sexual orientation. Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which fought on behalf of a lesbian who was denied insemination services by her Southern California health care providers, said the decision will impact lesbians and gay men throughout California and nationwide.

“This is a huge victory for equality,” said Jennifer C. Pizer, senior staff attorney in Lambda Legal’s Western Regional Office who worked on the case. “Today’s ruling means that lesbians and gay men should receive the same access to health care as everyone else, and if they are turned away without receiving appropriate care, they can fight back.”

In today’s 19-page decision, a three-judge panel of the state appeals court in San Diego ruled unanimously that doctors and health care providers are bound to follow state civil rights laws. California and 11 other states have laws prohibiting anti-gay discrimination in public accommodations, including health care services.

“Health care is a vital issue to every person in America - it’s one of our most basic needs,” Pizer said. “Since this is the first ruling of its kind, it will be a powerful tool for fighting discrimination around the country and ensuring that health care providers meet their legal and ethical obligations.”

In the summer of 2000, the North Coast Women’s Care Medical Group and doctors Christine Brody and Douglas Fenton refused to inseminate Guadalupe Benitez. She had received 11 months of treatment from the clinic - but at the critical and brief moment when she needed to be inseminated, both Brody and Fenton said that because of their personal religious beliefs about gay people, they would not administer the treatment. No other doctors within the medical group were available or willing to perform this procedure, so Benitez was forced to go outside of her health plan to receive services.

Benitez sued the Medical Group based on a California law outlawing discrimination by business establishments, including health care facilities, along with other legal claims. A state court in San Diego dismissed her entire case last year, ruling that a federal law regulating employee benefits plans bars a state civil rights claim against doctors whenever the doctors’ services are paid for through an employer-provided health plan. Today’s ruling clarifies that the federal law does not release doctors or health care providers from their obligation to serve all their patients equally.

“These health care providers weren’t being asked to provide unusual services to Guadalupe - this is a core part of their job,” said Benitez’s private attorney, Albert Gross of Solana Beach, California. “People have a right to choose to start families, and providers who offer these services to the public don’t get to pick and choose who can be a family.”

North Coast Women’s Care Medical Group was the only Ob/Gyn provider available to Benitez through her employer’s health care plan. Since North Coast refused to provide the standard procedure she was seeking, she was forced to find another provider that was not in her health care plan. In addition to the trauma of being “dumped” as a patient due to her sexual orientation, Benitez had to pay thousands of dollars to secure the treatment she needed. A year later, Benitez and her partner, Joanne Clark, welcomed a baby boy into their family.

Lambda Legal filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Benitez, which was authored by Pizer and cooperating attorneys Lisa Simonetti and Heather McConnell, of Stroock and Stroock and Lavan in Los Angeles.

Contact: Fred Shank, 212/809-8585 ext. 267; Jennifer Pizer, 213/382-7600 ext. 223 or 213/590-5903 (mobile)